We’ve often been frustrated by the Air Force’s grudging provision of Close Air Support (CAS) over the years. And there’s an institutional perception throughout the Army that the Air Force doesn’t want to do CAS, and perhaps the Army should take over that role.
But it isn’t simply a case of the Air Force being a bunch of assholes, and leaving the Army hanging out to dry. There are real challenges to providing the type and quantity that Army would desire. Indeed, as a practical matter, they could never provide enough, as the Army would only demand more.
Since 1942, US ground commanders have been asking for more and better close air support. Early attempts at CAS in North Africa and Italy were dismal, partly because of technical reasons, partly because there was no established doctrine for how it should be done, and (in North Africa, especially) partly because the Luftwaffe had, if not air superiority, then at least air parity.
But as communications, techniques, and our own air superiority improved, so too did the Army Air Forces ability to provide CAS. By the time of the invasion of Normandy, the 9th Air Force introduced the TACs, or Tactical Air Commands. Each TAC was designed to operate in direct support of one of the field armies on the ground in France. And they did a great job. But what they didn’t do was provide a constant umbrella of CAS over each and every unit. In fact, a lot of what they did would later become known as BAI, or Battlefield Air Interdiction. What they DID do that is historically important, however, is to integrate their operations to support and synch up with those of the ground commander.
In Korea, and especially in Vietnam, when we think of CAS, we see it being used essentially as really heavy artillery, available on call when normal tube artillery wasn’t enough. For the most part, in the permissive environment in South Vietnam, that’s how the Army wanted it to be used, and the Air Force, in spite of its own institutional reservations, provided a great deal of that.
But after Vietnam, just as the Army turned its eyes to Western Europe, so did the Air Force. Just as the Army was facing enormous numbers of tanks and motorized Soviet divisions, the Air Force faced a very similar challenge in terms of the sheer numbers of Soviet Frontal Aviation forces arrayed against them. The Air Force faced up to the probability that if there was a war in Western Europe, they’d be lucky to maintain air-parity, and unlikely to immediately achieve air superiority. And given that fact, there would be no way they could provide CAS on anything like the scale the Army would want.
And for the most part, the Army understood that. The Air Force wasn’t ducking out on CAS because they didn’t like doing it. They were faced with the age old challenge of too many missions for the resources available. And something had to give. So the Air Force wanted to capitalize on the strengths of airpower, and use it to its maximum effectiveness for each sortie flown.
There came to be three basic types of missions in support of ground forces: Close Air Support, Interdiction, and a new term, Battlefield Air Interdiction, or BAI.
Close Air Support is, roughly, those air missions that are terminally controlled by a Forward Air Controller at the front lines, or in support of troops in contact.
Interdiction missions were deep strikes against ground targets in the enemy’s rear areas that were in general support of the ground forces, such as marshaling yards for railroads, oil refineries, ports and other shipping targets, command and control assets, and other infrastructure targets.
Battlefield Air Interdiction, however, was a little different. These were strikes in the enemy’s rear that were designed to directly influence the enemy, attrit his forces, and support a ground commander’s specific scheme of maneuver, but were far enough behind the front lines that they were not controlled by a forward air controller on the ground. The air commander and the ground commander worked together to nominate and service targets in this BAI environment. And example might be tasking the Air Force to drop a specific bridge, at a specific time, to disrupt the movement of a Soviet Motor Rifle Division for a predictable period of time (and likely follow up that strike with a series of strikes on the MRD while it is waiting for an alternate bridge to cross).
Airpower’s inherent capability to mass quickly and strike targets of relatively fleeting opportunity made BAI a more lucrative mission that trying to pick off a tank here or there at the front lines. Two F-16s might kill a couple tanks at the front lines, or they might stall an entire division for a day or more by dropping a bridge. The return on investment argued for the BAI mission, as far as the Air Force was concerned.
And the Air Force put a lot of effort and resources into the mission. Over the course of several decades, the Air Force spent billions and billions of dollars supporting this job. The E-8 JSTARS was designed to help find out where these columns of enemy divisions were. Entire families of bombs were designed to help the Air Force attack columns of Soviet tanks before they deployed into assault formation. Sensors and command and control networks were developed to give the Air Force the ability to find worthy targets, and assign appropriate strike packages to them quickly, all to support the scheme of maneuver on the ground.
The Army and the Air Force, through a series of high level staff conferences, came to a rough agreement on the role of airpower in the Army’s AirLand Battle Doctrine. As a practical matter, the Army understood that anything that was within range of the artillery of a unit on the ground was an Army target, to be attacked with artillery (or attack helicopters), and those targets further out were for the Air Force to attack. Those targets within a tactical corps Area of Interest (that is, enemy units that could reach the front in 48-72 hours, or roughly 100 miles behind the front lines) were generally treated as BAI targets, and the Air Force would work within the ground commander to attack those specific targets the ground commander nominated. Anything further back from the front lines was generally considered an interdiction target, and the Air Force would attack those based on its own desires, and the priorities of the theater commander.
Nor did the Air Force totally ignore the need for Close Air Support. It did, after all, in the austere budget environment of the 1970s, develop and buy several hundred A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft, designed specifically for Close Air Support. And every it provided Forward Air Controllers and Air Liaison Officers to every brigade in the Army. So the Air Force would provide some level of CAS to the Army, but the Army would have to prioritize which units on the ground would benefit from the limited available supply of CAS sorties.
The demonstration of this concept was, like so much else of AirLand Battle, the First Gulf War. While the Navy was firing Tomahawk missiles at Baghdad, and the Air Force’s F-117s were going downtown as well, the Air Force focused first on dismantling the Iraqi air defense network, bombing airfields and control nodes throughout the land. But they also quickly began both isolating the battlefield in general, by dropping bridges and cutting communications, and they began supporting the Army’s scheme of maneuver. They atrited Iraqi formations in general, and they attacked to fix, atrit or destroy specific units that the Army nominated for attention. If these attacks weren’t nearly as successful as the Air Force hoped (or claimed) that was more a matter of technical limitations than of a faulty doctrinal basis, or lack of good faith effort on the part of the Air Force. If each tank brigade in Desert Storm didn’t have a flight of A-10s overhead at all times, the Air Force might be forgiven for pointing out that the brigade did have access to at least one, and often three battalions of 155mm artillery, possibly a battalion of 8” artillery, a battalion of MLRS rocket artillery, and a battalion (or more) of AH-64 Apache gunships. The Army wasn’t exactly hurting for fire support in the close fight…
But now we come to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The low intensity conflict there against terrorist groups means that there really aren’t any BAI target or interdiction targets for the Air Force to attack. The enemy rarely masses and identifies itself until it is actually in contact with our ground forces. Further, the near universal adoption of precision guided munitions such as laser guided bombs, and GPS guided JDAMs means airpower can be used more precisely than conventional unguided artillery fires, with lower collateral damages. And the ability of strike aircraft to share video of their targeting imagery with forces on the ground via systems like ROVER (which transmits video from their targeting pods to laptops in the hands of troops on the ground) provides an excellent ability to “see over the next hill” or “around the corner” that his highly valued.
So CAS has quickly become the “big gun” of choice for troop units on the ground. After all, few things put an end to a fight like dropping a 2000lb bomb on the other guys head.
But while the Air Force has provided CAS for the Army for almost 10 years now in Afghanistan and Iraq, they still have other missions facing them. They still need to train to fight and win air superiority against a more conventional foe. And they only have a limited amount of money to spend. I strongly suspect the Air Force would be delighted to operated a Light Attack turbo prop plane in support of the Army… except they are convinced that the money would have to do so would inevitably come from the hide of some other program that the Air Force, as an institution, sees as a higher priority in the long term. One suspects also that the Air Force didn’t quite anticipate that it would be called upon to provide an aerial umbrella for a decade or more.
With the adoption of precision ground fires such as the Guided MLRS, the guided Excalibur 155mm projectile, and the newest GPS guided 120mm mortar round, perhaps some of the demand signal for Close Air Support will diminish. But likely not. Even with those tools in his pocket, any commander that thinks he can get air assets overhead is certainly going to ask for them. No commander ever went into a fight thinking he had too many resources.